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Training grants help promising scientists jump-start their careers

geAfter completing a portion of her research through a Cancer Biology Training Grant at the University, scientist Mariangellys Rodriguez landed a sought-after fellowship through the National Institutes of Health. (Photo: Richard Anderson) As a third-year graduate student in cancer biology at the University of Minnesota, Mariangellys Rodriguez set her sights on a short-term goal. She’d heard about the Cancer Biology Training Grant, a means to acquire two to three years of research funding, and she realized that getting the grant would be an important step toward her future.

“I applied as soon as the application was available,” she says.

Supported by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the grant is now in its 35th year at the University and supports a wide array of laboratory-based research areas, including cancer genetics, tumor biology and progression, immunology, and therapeutics.

And while earning one of these prestigious grants is an honor for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, the grants showcase an institution as well.

“The [National Institutes of Health (NIH), of which the NCI is a part] awards training grants to institutions that have made a commitment to creating a strong training program, with resources, infrastructure, faculty, and excellent trainees,” says Yoji Shimizu, Ph.D., who has directed the cancer biology training program for the last 10 years.

The Cancer Biology Training Grant selection committee handpicks recipients each year, carefully considering applicants’ grades, quality of courses, letters of recommendation, and proposed scientific research. The committee also seeks qualities of excellence: “intelligence, motivation, independence, initiative, productivity”—in short, “evidence that these young people have the requisite skills to be the next faculty members and leaders in cancer research,” Shimizu says.

Rodriguez, for instance, works in the lab of breast cancer researcher David Potter, M.D., Ph.D., studying how a particular enzyme present in most breast cancers may induce dietary fatty acids, like omega-3 in fish oil, to cause certain breast cancer cells to multiply. The training grant has enabled her to conduct expensive tests that otherwise would have been difficult to include in her research plan. She also has attended a national cancer research conference using the grant money.

Just as significantly, Rodriguez says, being part of the program furthered her professional development. Through their mentors in the Masonic Cancer Center, grant recipients are exposed to new topics in cancer research and get public speaking experience through seminars and journal clubs. Rodriguez especially found useful the informal “roundtable,” in which grantees discussed their work to help one another “troubleshoot an experiment that wasn’t working, or find an answer to a question that wasn’t apparent,” she says.

Rodriguez now has finished the training program and landed much-sought-after fellowship funding from the NIH.

“[The program] documents the ability of a young scientist to compete for funding,” Shimizu says. “Ultimately, that’s what they’ll need to do to be successful in their careers.”

And for Rodriguez, the future looks bright.

By: Kate Ledger

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